Arne Duncan, US secretary of education, tweeted in 2013: “let teens sleep, start school later.” Now a new report from researchers at the Harvard Medical School, Oxford University, and the University of Nevada, Reno, takes a close look at the negative consequences of starting school too early in light of research published over the last 30 years in sleep medicine and circadian neuroscience.
Simply put, changing the time of day that teenagers spend in a classroom—specifically, starting later in the morning, at a time that is more consistent with their circadian sleep cycles—can both improve learning and reduce health risks.
“A common belief is that adolescents are tired, irritable, and uncooperative because they choose to stay up too late or are difficult to wake in the morning because they are lazy,” authors write. “Educators tend to think that adolescents learn best in the morning and if they simply went to sleep earlier, it would improve their concentration.”
This isn’t exactly how it works with teens, the study is quick to point out. Here’s what they recommend:
- At age 10, the research-based “wake time” is about 6:30. Start school between 8:30 and 9.
- At age 16, the wake time is about 8:00. Start school between 10 and 10:30.
- At age 18, the wake time is about 9:00. Start classes between 11 and 11:30.
Even if the times aren’t so drastically modified, starting high before 16-year-olds are even awake—any time before 8:00—is just ridiculous. Maybe 8:30, as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, would be a good compromise, but 7:17, as was the case in Anne Arundel County, Md., is completely off the mark.
Boards of education sometimes claim changing the start times will cost more money, because bus schedules have to be redone. I have yet to understand this side of the debate. How can busing the same number of kids to the same schools, using the same number of buses, cost more if it’s done at 8:30 than if it’s done at 7:30? It boggles the mind.
The paper does consider a few policy notes, although treatment of the sleep science in the paper is far stronger than treatment of policy. The paper never considers any budget questions. Maybe, like me, the study’s authors couldn’t understand that argument either. Final recommendations for later start times include the following:
The synchronization of education to adolescent biology enables immediate advances in educational attainment and can be achieved with a relatively simple step that does not require new teaching methods, new testing or large additional expenditure. The reduction of health risks through the same intervention requires no new medical methods, screening or treatment.
Good policies should be based on good evidence, and the data show that children are currently placed at an enormous disadvantage by being forced to keep to inappropriate education times.
Synchronizing education institutions’ timings to adolescent biology to enable adequate sleep time seems both practical and necessary, and reflects what can be achieved by considered and well-researched trans-disciplinary interventions based on neuroscience, sleep science, and education research.